President Trump is apparently horrified. He fears people are going to tear down statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because people want to remove monuments to the Confederacy (Motto: We make treason cool for 20th and 21st century nitwits).
Seriously. The only people arguing this are those who can only win an argument by offering slippery slope tropes. That they’re doing this to essentially defend Nazis and white nationalists should shock no one.
The premise is wrong for one glaringly obvious reason, as well as one most people don’t realize.
Let’s concentrate on the obscure one. We’ll start with a question: What were the view of the Founding Fathers when it came to slavery? That’s tough, I know. It’s actually quite complex. Maybe we’ll start with a bit of an easier one. How many founders can you name?
There’s no wrong answer here. No shame if it is just the prominent guys like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, John Adams, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton? Can you go a bit deeper and recall Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Gouverneur Morris, Sam Adams, Robert Morris and John Hancock? How about Richard or Henry Lee, Edmund Randolph, Robert Livingston or Roger Sherman? You got Button Gwinnett, William Whipple or Caesar Rodney? Again, there’s no shame if it’s seven or 18. Props if you can name all 56 signers of the Declaration, though. I’m blown out of the water if you can name the six original Supreme Court Justices.
What can you remember about our individual founders? Which ones were abolitionists? Which ones didn’t own slaves, but weren’t quite abolitionists? Which ones were slave owners? Which ones were for the revolution and against the Constitution? Which ones were for both? Which ones wrote the Federalist Papers? Which ones were born outside the colonies?
I promise you I’m going somewhere with this. If you don’t know those answers, you probably don’t know how slavery was viewed worldwide – particularly in western civilization – at the founding of the country. And knowing that tells you a lot about the difference between our country’s founders and the people who tried to break away from it.
We’ll start by pointing out that some people – such as St. Patrick – had been arguing slavery was wrong for centuries before the founders met in 1776 or 1787. Their cries mostly fell on deaf ears. There were some outlier countries, like Japan, which dropped the practice before 1600 rolled around.
At the time of the founding, however, a movement was clearly stirring. Take Ben Franklin, for example. A former slave-owner, he was active in the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and for the Relief of Free Negroes. He petitioned congress to ban slavery in 1790. He wasn’t alone among founders who were against slavery. Alexander Hamilton and John Adams were against slavery. Among the people who met in Philadelphia, though, they were in the minority.
That slavery was allowed at the founding was basically a predictable abomination. It’s something we can judge the founders on, but not as harshly as we’d probably like to.
Almost a century later, 71 years after the Constitution signed, the Civil War broke out. The issue is another story, altogether.
By the time the South seceded (solely because of slaver, but that’s another post for another day), all northern states had abolished slavery. In Europe, France, the Netherlands, Greece, Great Brittan, Moldavia, Sweden and other countries had outlawed the practice. In the Americas, Chile, Venezuela, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Peru and Mexico, among others, had banned slavery. So let’s be honest, by the time shots were fired at Fort Sumter, slavery was looked down upon by most of the western hemisphere.
But the American south had to be driven, kicking and screaming (Yep, it’s a familiar narrative, if you know American history) toward progress.
After the Civil War, however, the south was allowed to reinvent its story. It was allowed to present itself as a noble effort to present state’s rights (This is a load of historical bunk. Just read South Carolina’s declaration of secession to get the goods on that one. Especially the paragraph protesting the laws northern states passed against slavery). The context of how slavery was viewed at the time is lost on most Americans.
So the Confederate’s views on slavery at the time of the civil war were a stain on our nation. That monuments were built to these individuals in the 1920s, 1960s and 1990s is galling. Particularly when so many were built in non-Confederate areas. It’s one thing to have monuments at the battlefield. And it’s one thing to have relics in museums. Those items can tell accurate histories. A decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires admitting that many of the monuments erected and streets and schools named after confederacy were done so not to honor the dead but to suppress nonwhites.
Statues of Jefferson and Washington aren’t there for that purpose*. In fact, there is a reason the Founders weren’t as lionized in the South during reconstruction. Abraham Lincoln and abolitionists had adopted their language and purpose. Putting up a statue of the man who wrote “All men are created equal” – even if he owned slaves – reinforces the fact that all men are indeed created equal. Putting up a statue to an abolitionist like Franklin would be anathema to the Lost Cause narrative.
Which brings us back to the obvious point of why no one is going after statues of the Founders. They founded the country that the traitors rebelled against. Their vision remains guided by our better angels while the Confederacy – and its modern white nationalist and Nazi proponents – is the nightmare of our basest elements.
We’re here because of them. Their statues stay.
*That being said, we should be strong enough as a society to reference that these men held other humans in bondage during their lives. That’s the truth and it should be represented in museums, public parks and such.